Mary Magdalene film review: little incentive for audience investment

Rooney Mara in Mary Magdalene.
Rooney Mara in Mary Magdalene.

WITH Lion, director Garth Davis told the heart-wrenching true story of a child separated from his family who survives the harsh streets of Kolkata and adjusts to life with adoptive Tasmanian parents.

It is the kind of film that even those with the coldest soul and stoniest heart would require a box of tissues to sit through.

Davis’ latest film Mary Magdalene tells of a different journey – Jesus’ sole female apostle who defied the domestic life mapped out for her by society – yet there is something important missing this time: emotion and connection.

Mary (Rooney Mara) spends her days working the land, nervously waiting for the day her family sets her up with a husband to start her life of domesticity, something her sisters have already begun.

When Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives in town on foot, she sees hope for a different life for herself and turns her back on her family to accompany him on his trek to Jerusalem – but not before her family try to exorcise perceived demons from her body.

Davis’ deliberately quiet and restrained take on Mary’s story aims for poetic imagery and moments of reflection; there are plenty of dialogue-less shots that allow the images to tell the story.

However, this is such a slow-moving film that develops its dramatic arcs with such a blase approach that there is little weight to it.

It merely hints at the feminist aspect – Mary makes the society-defying decision to ditch her family but without so much as a shrug of her shoulders.

Being that this was written by two women, Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, it is surprising that the female perspective is so muted; this also ends up being as much about Jesus as it is about Mary.

In keeping with Davis’ approach, actors Mara and Phoenix are equally restrained, so much so that there is no spark between the two and little incentive for the audience to be invested.

To see a filmmaker go from such confidence with emotionally heavy material to apparently struggle with basic dramatic beats is baffling – or perhaps Davis was going for something that just went way over my head.


Mary Magdalene (MA)

Directed by: Garth Davis

Starring: Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Two stars

Review by: Julian Wright

In cinemas now